By Pete Phillips, Crosswalk.com
Most of us are not very good at putting our phones down -- we reach for them repeatedly, in public, in private, with friends, in church, at work, and at play. We know that phones create in us an addictive response -- seeing we have a like on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter gives us a quick mental boost, a dopamine rush that our brains come to expect. We can become addicted to the flurry of interaction because it means that someone is engaged with us -- someone loves us.
Human beings are quite prone to addiction, so we need to be careful how we manage our social media interactions to avoid becoming addicted. Of course, we are not our addictions. We are image-bearers of the God of love. But it's always good to have a check-up and see where our motivations are coming from.
Social Media Addiction?
That sense of addiction is often translated by us not as a chemical shift in our brains, but as a personal feeling about being accepted by others. I've heard people say "Nobody loves me" when there are no likes on Facebook, but of course, that's not true. However, we can invest so much in the social importance of online media that it can begin to feel like that -- I mean look at all those other people in my feed who are getting so many likes! If only...
A recent article about Online Addiction ran in PremierChristianity recently, pointing out the impact of those social media algorithms which feed us what we see online. The role of these algorithms is to gather data in order to find out what we like to look at. If we look at lots of Facebook posts on sneezing cats, the search algorithms tell the publishing algorithms to send more cats. We actually curate a lot of what we see online. The algorithms want you to like their site. If we look at political arguments, then these too will proliferate on our feed. Social Media companies want you to spend more time on their site to increase their ad revenue, so feeding you what they think you want to see is important.
But it also means that social media can often create filter bubbles. We stay in our own little worlds. Twitter does this very well -- by following like-minded people, we think all the world thinks like us. It's often a good idea to follow a few people you don't agree with to ensure you have a wider view of the whole of Twitter. But, at the same time, for the sake of your sanity, feel free to mute or block people if their views offend you too much.
By viewing other posts you like, and especially by liking/sharing/commenting/retweeting posts you like, you can actually develop your feed in a meaningful way. Respond to the posts of good friends. Seek them out and send a like or two. Add a comment. Be proactive. This does two things.
- First of all, it does the social engagement which social media is all about -- it's good for those people to see you like their comments or pictures or shares.
- Secondly, the algorithm learns that these are the kind of people, the interests, the photos that you want to spend time with online. You may find your stream becomes even more filled with people you like and want to spend time with.
Shape Your Feed
So, shape your feed – tend to it as you'd tend to your garden – water the best plants, like the best pictures, and comment on the best posts. But, ironically, don't spend too much time on the weeds because Facebook will just send you loads more weeds to deal with!
And then there is Twitter and all those other social media feeds. Twitter is increasingly a difficult place -- one of my colleagues at Durham University always said it was a toxic technology. But some feel they need to be there to leaven the batch, as it were -- to be a Christian presence in the heart of darkness (that's an exaggeration...). I think the same goes for all social media feeds:
- engage carefully
- feel free to unfollow people who wind you up or are unhelpful.
- feel free to follow people who encourage you and build you up.
- be careful not to be drawn into controversy.
- as Bex Lewis used to say: when you post, think what God would think of your post, or your mom or your best friend...or your worst enemy.
Philippians 4:8: "...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – spend your time focusing on such things." (PMP translation)
Cleansing Your Feed
I talked above about how we can teach the algorithms by engaging positively with our social media feed. The more good you put in, the more the algorithm will show you good things -- remember the people who wrote those algorithms want to get more of your attention, not put you off. So curate your own feed by spending more time on your friends’ posts, on pictures that bring you joy, and on making comments which encourage others. Try to make Philippians 4:8 your own motto for your social media feed. Sometimes in social media, we call this cleansing your feed but there are times when we need to cleanse our mind as well -- perhaps by focusing on doing something creative, painting a picture, or writing a poem. We've started going for a walk in the early evening and watching for wildlife where we live. Just walking together in the calm of the evening is a mindful practice -- even if the deer don't make an appearance!
Again from the article about online addiction: “But algorithms work both ways. To take back control of my browsing, I clicked on about thirty videos of sneezing cats and laughing babies, sowing a very different sort of seed, until all the unhelpful content had been shunted off my homepage, replaced by innocent, adorable amusement. When we’re struggling to stop sowing to the flesh, we need to double down on sowing to the Spirit. We need to bombard our search engines with requests for the true, pure, and admirable content spoken about in Philippians 4:8. Or sneezing cats. That works, too.”
Photo Credit: ©Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio
Dr. Pete Phillips is Premier’s Head of Digital Theology and a researcher at Durham University. With a PhD in John’s Gospel and many years’ experience of teaching and researching the New Testament, Pete now explores the interface between all things digital and theological. He is the author of Engaging the Word (BRF) and The Pixelated Text (academia.edu).